Every year, radio listenership declines, while podcast audiences increase. In 2010, 93 percent of Americans listened to the radio, while 12 percent listened to a podcast. Now, it’s 83 percent radio vs. 41 percent podcast. Just as the Web replaced print newspapers, podcasts appear to be on their way to becoming our primary form of aural media consumption. Chicago is on top of this trend, with great podcasts on news, sports, politics, music, books and history. Here are 10 of our favorites.
City Cast Chicago: The essential Chicago podcast. Every morning at 6 a.m., host Jacoby Cochran is up with interviews on the city’s most talked-about issues. So far this week, he’s discussed the fight to save Mercy Hospital, Chicago Public Schools’ bus shortage, and the Bulls’ 6-1 start. In the past, he’s talked with Ali author Jonathan Eig about Muhammad Ali’s time in Chicago. Cochran is a lifelong South Sider, so City Cast brings a perspective from his side of Madison Street. The episodes are usually 10 to 15 minutes long — the perfect breakfast length.
The Madigan Rule: A five-part series on Illinois’s master of Machine politics, produced by the Better Government Association. Doesn’t sound like it would be sympathetic, does it? In fact, The Madigan Rule is admiring in its portrayal of how former House Speaker Michael Madigan attained and wielded power. Former Gov. Jim Edgar — one of four ex-govs interviewed — said Madigan never lied to him. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy says Madigan taught her that constituent services are the mother’s milk of politics. This isn’t just a lesson in how Chicago politics works, but how politics works, period.
Vanished Chicagoland: Podcasts are supposed to have an anti-radio aesthetic. We hear people who don’t sound like Bill Kurtis — they’re unscripted, unedited and speaking in local accents unsmoothed by broadcaster training. The completely charming Vanished Chicagoland is the ramblings of Pete Kastanes, a middle-aged man reminiscing about his South Side upbringing. In his Halloween episode, Kastanes talked about trick-or-treating in Ashburn; living in a Roseland apartment above a shoe store, while his father worked nights at the Conrad Hilton; shopping at Kresge’s, which was just down the street from Gately’s on South Michigan Avenue; attending Bogan High School; moving to the suburbs in 1995; his love of the TV show Dark Shadows; and his recovery from prostate cancer.
Windy City Historians: Lengthy discussions of Chicago history, hosted by Patrick McBriarty, author of Chicago River Bridges, and Christopher Lynch. In Episode 7 (of 25 so far) they went all the way back to the very beginning of Chicago history with an hour-long interview of three men who reenacted Marquette’s and Joliet’s canoe trip on its 300 anniversary, in 1973. (When they made it to Chicago, they were greeted by Mayor Richard J. Daley and other dignitaries.) Other episodes have covered LaSalle and the voyageurs, the stockyards, the Pullman strike, and “George Ade and the Old-Time Saloon.”
Improv Nerd: Chicago was the birthplace of improvisational comedy, so it should be the home of an improv podcast, right? In the most recent episode of Improv Nerd (#277!), host Jimmy Carrane spoke with Jude Leak, director of the Viola Spolin documentary Inventing Improv. (Spolin was literally the mother of improv, inventing a style of dramatic training called theater games, and giving birth to Paul Sills, who founded the Compass Players and The Second City.) Carrane is an improv instructor and former host of WBEZ’s Studio 312.
Hoge & Jahns: Adam Hoge and Adam Jahns — the two Adams — are, respectively, a Bears beat reporter for NBC Sports and a Bears beat reporter for The Athletic. This Monday morning, they sounded like two Lake View bros hung over after a long evening in a tavern as they dissected the Bears’ 33-22 loss to the 49ers. The verdict: Justin Fields showed improvement, but “the Bears’ defense spent too much time on the field,” said one Adam.
“Except after the 49ers scored,” said the other Adam.
That was the first half of the podcast. In the second half, they wrote off the Bears’ season, since Football Outsider gives them a 2.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, and talked about who the team can get for running back David Montgomery and safety Eddie Jackson. So at least they’re more realistic than the Superfans about a certain team from a certain town that begins with a C, ends with an O, and has “HICAG” in the middle.
Curious City: WBEZ’s investigative series, in which it answers listener questions about life in Chicagoland, is actually a radio program, airing on Thursdays during All Things Considered — hence the production and journalistic values. In the most recent episode, Curious City looked into an urban legend surrounding a rail crossing on Munger Road in Bartlett. Supposedly, a bus full of schoolchildren was killed by a train there, and their ghosts appear to push cars off the tracks to safety. The verdict: never happened, but the legend may be based on a 1930s Utah school bus accident that made national news. Some other recent investigations: “Why Are Cicadas So Loud?” and “What Are Those Giant Structures Out in Lake Michigan?”
Chicago Acoustic Underground: This podcast has music! Certain other local music podcasts only interview musicians, which isn’t all that interesting. We want to hear musicians sing, not talk! Chicago Acoustic Underground seems to understand this. In Episode 750 (there are a lot of folksingers in the Chicago area), the host began by asking Ryland Foxx about his upbringing in Hoffman Estates. That wasn’t a very exciting topic, so Foxx was invited to play some of the tunes he’d be singing at Space in Evanston that night. Other recent guests: Modern Daybreak, The Long Farewells with Aaron Rester and Gabrielle Schafer, and Taylor Steele and the Love Preachers (who are actually from Effingham).
Some of My Best Friends Are…: White journalist Ben Austen and Black professor Khalil Muhammad grew up together on the South Side. Austen is the author of High-Risers: Cabrini Green and the Fate of American Public Housing. Muhammad — a great grandson of Elijah Muhammad — is a professor of history at Harvard. They pod back together to discuss racial issues from both sides of the color line. A recent episode was devoted to the Obamas’ memoirs: Michelle’s Becoming and Barack’s A Promised Land.
“You have a theory that Barack speaks more slowly when he’s talking about race than other issues,” Muhammad said to Austen.
“He doesn’t want to own the burden of making white people feel they’re all racist,” Austen said.
Becoming, said Austen, is “specifically about being Black and working class on the South Side of Chicago — after Civil Rights.” Both men appreciated Michelle’s shoutout to the #6 bus, since they took it, too.
Austen and Muhammad are both highly accomplished in their fields, so Some of My Best Friends Are… is slicker than many of the recorded-on-a-phone podcasts here. They even run ads for California Closets and Anheuser-Busch.
Open Stacks: Do you miss the old, underground Seminary Co-op Bookstore? Open Stacks, the bookstore’s podcast does, describing it as “a maze of rooms in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary” that crammed a mile-and-a-half of shelving into 1,800 square feet, and wrapped tennis balls around steam pipe knobs so browsers wouldn’t bonk their heads. The episode “A Cave With Windows: Bookstore as Building” featured an interview with former manager Jack Cella, now retired and living in Duluth. Then it went on to a discussion of the “curatorial vs. commercial” (LeRoi Jones’s Black Music is staying on the shelves, even if doesn’t sell a copy for two-and-a-half years, because “its presence there gives it that historical authenticity.”) If you want to know how Sem Co-op comes up with such section titles as “Commodity Aesthetics,” this is the podcast for you.